What Is Toxic Forgiveness? And Is It Really Possible to "Forgive and Forget"?
As it turns out, the old adage "forgive and forget" isn't as accurate as we'd like to believe. Instead, it's more like "forgive a little bit and pretend to forget," said Nedra Glover Tawwab, relationship therapist and author of "Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself," who joined the latest episode of "Red Table Talk."
Tawwab likes to describe the pressure you or others place on yourself to "let go" as toxic forgiveness. It's something country music star Jana Kramer can relate to deeply. She also joined the "Red Table Talk" conversation and opened up about how she continually forgave her ex-husband's multiple infidelities. (Kramer says he cheated with at least 13 different women.) When in reality, "I didn't forgive him. I said I trusted him, but I didn't trust him," she told RTT hosts Jada Pinkett Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Norris and special guest Sheree Zampino, Will Smith's former wife. "I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop," Kramer went on to say.
So why do we feel pressure to forgive when we're not ready, and how do we get out of the loop of toxic forgiveness?
What Is Toxic Forgiveness?
Tawwab defines toxic forgiveness as the unhealthy way we pretend to be "over it" in an effort to move on quicker. "I sit down with people and hear them beating themselves up because they want to forgive, they want to be 'over it,' but sometimes it is a process, and when we force it, it's unhealthy for us." Because instead of allowing space for real forgiveness, we're actually still hurting.
"We're talking to 50 people about it behind the person's back," she said, "instead of saying, 'I'm not ready to forgive yet' or 'I'm not ready to be in a relationship with you because I'm still holding onto something' or 'This was so big, I don't know if I can trust you again.'"
Most people tend to be "very rushed about feelings," Tawwab said — and wanting to be done with them. But the healthy form of forgiveness often takes time.
What Can You Do to Put an End to Toxic Forgiveness?
Tawwab's solution to toxic forgiveness is an "unforgiveness revolution." Not necessarily forgiving less often, but doing it at your own pace. "A healthier version of forgiveness looks like acceptance of the event, learning to let go of some of the anger, and feeling less consumed by it," she said. But ultimately, forgiveness is a choice. "Just because we don't forgive a person, we can still be kind, we can be pleasant. I think we believe that unforgiveness is being mean to people. You can be kind and not like people."
Sheree Zampino, Will Smith's former wife, acknowledged the challenges that came with integrating life with his current wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. While the two say they have a good relationship now, Jada admitted, "Sometimes we did have to 'fake it to make it.'" Lines were crossed while they worked on blending the family — like when Jada scolded Zampino and Will's son — and it involved a lot of forgiveness over time and along the way.
"It's a lot of work to get to the point where we're not thinking about it as often. I say, 'as often,' because we feel that once we've forgiven someone we should never be triggered," Tawwab said. "But there are things that continue to trigger us, like if someone sends another DM, or if you see something, smell something, that memory may come back." She suggested thinking about it as "healing" and not "healed." It's an ongoing, active process and not a final result.
Kramer said she used to avoid driving by a certain hotel where she knew her ex had slept with other women. But then she started purposely driving by the hotel in an effort to feel in control. Tawwab said this is a good example of "exposure therapy," or placing a person in situations with the source of their distress. "Exposing yourself to the trigger to flatten it," she explained. Sometimes it can be helpful to be triggered a little bit so you can practice managing the emotions that come up rather than avoiding them altogether and convincing yourself that you're over it.
At the end of the day, "Forgiveness is for your own emotional process," Tawwab explained. "It's for you to accept the situation" — regardless of how fast or slow you want to go.
Watch the full episode below.